Category Archives: Building community

Accept the one whose faith is weak (2009)

In 2009 my former church was going through growing pains. We were organized in a way that required many leaders to take initiative and get along. This speech reflects that. 

In the letter to the church at Colossae, Paul says: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” It appears a lot of people in the first century can’t read. And no one has invented the printing press, yet, even if you wanted to get your own copy of something to read. So people read to each other. That seems nice to me. There is something about hearing something read that makes it more personal, I think, more communal. There is also something ceremonial about public readings, tribal. The new churches to whom Paul is writing are getting their identity shaped by doing new things together, like hearing a letter to them. So since this chapter of Romans is all about creating redeemed people and being together in love, let’s have a major reading of Romans 14:1-15:7.

Let’s take turns, a man and then a woman, and everyone read the parts that are in yellow. We’re going to read it slow and ceremonially. Let it sink in. Maybe you can imagine it is a time, like the first century, before last vestige of tribal activity was gathering on Wednesdays to watch Lost and having a letter read to you might seem important.

Activated acceptance

Isn’t that a great chapter? And did you notice how well it fits into our era! So often the Bible seems kind of dated (since it is 2000 years old) — but not this chapter.

The thing I like best about living in the postmodern world is that the post-Christian, Eurocentric countries hung on to and activated Paul’s message about acceptance. A great contribution to western thought from Christianity is the duty to accept others as having a basic, God-given freedom of conscience that should be respected. That principle is clearly stated in this chapter.

Without Full Acceptance by Christians, Gays Are Demeaned and Hurt - NYTimes.comOne of the things I like least about living in the postmodern world is that the Christians are known for NOT activating Paul’s message of acceptance. I’m not sure the reputation is deserved, since many Jesus-followers are performing the miracle of reconciliation all the time – they are mostly unnoticed as great lovers often prefer to be. But there are Christians who like to get noticed who are out there front and center. Such signs were in the background of the recent Equality Forum. Those are Christians making sure that they are known for not accepting what they consider unacceptable. Paul says don’t dispute about disputable issues, but it looks like there are not too many issues that Christians find indisputable.

The Horning Church of Black-bumper Weaverland Mennonites split from their church in 1927 over the use of cars, but covered up the flashy chrome with black paint.

My favorite example of disputatious Christians has always been the Amish, who are supposedly among the peaceful people of the world. But they are quite disputatious.  Some won’t use any modern conveniences and are stuck around 1880. Others own vehicles but won’t drive them – they hire the English to do that. Others own vehicles but won’t allow any ornamentation on them – they are known as the black bumper Amish. Others can have chrome. They seem to accept one another’s weirdness OK, but it is kind of hard to imagine how someone got the argument going that started a new sect of black bumper Amish.

Acceptance forms a peculiar culture

In our church, in which some of us are the only-own-a-bicycle people, we are pretty good at accepting one another’s weirdness, too. But even though we are pretty acclimated to the best thing about postmodernism and we also like Paul’s ideas about accepting people, we still have our moments when we just don’t know how far acceptance should go. That is what Paul’s chapter is trying to sort out.

Like how much accommodation do meat-eaters make for vegetarians and vegans? How much should the rule-followers allow the footloose to NOT follow all the incomprehensible laws of Licenses and Inspections when we rehab another derelict building? Can a proactive peacemaker accept someone who thinks war can be OK? What matters of faith are not disputable?

As you can see in the chapter, these kinds of issues have always been with us. If we weren’t to be respected as people with individual choices to make, then we could just make rules and kill those on the other side – but God’s grace is more right than that kind of right.

The other day I was talking to someone about one of our blessed church leaders. There is a whole new crew of them now who are forming a new leadership team, if the Council approves this improvement on June 6.  I was seeing that a whole new crew of people has a whole new level of acceptance to exercise. It is very interesting to see how these things work out. This group doesn’t fully know how to communicate yet, so they have to listen hard. They all have power in their respective teams and now they have to actively share it. They don’t have mutual habits and agreements set, so they have to create them. These things all take a great deal of acceptance. To make the team work well, everyone has to start with Paul’s fact that everyone has their own beauty and value before God and God is able to make them beautiful and valuable to us.

The postmodern mindset leaves God out of this process acceptance. Most of us leave God out these days, too. When someone is about to go for a new job, like one of my friends did last week, we say Good luck! not God bless you! “God bless you” has fallen out of favor unless you are sneezing in certain parts of the city – some places less than others. So our acceptance these days takes on a form of godliness but denies God’s presence. We have laws that enforce acceptance and lawsuits to go with them. Now it is popular to be a comedian who is all about not accepting people, since comedians get mileage out of being cleverly contrary.

But true acceptance is another miracle born of the Spirit. We rely on that miracle happening among our leadership team, who are at the heart of a church where accepting one another is elemental to our character. That kind of grace can’t really be legislated, or willed; it is part of being redeemed and being a redeemer with the Redeemer. 15:7  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

The point of accepting one another is not merely because it is SO much more pleasant than not doing it, it is to bring praise to God who crosses barriers and builds love in the world. The point of accepting one another is not just to be nice and be acceptable to God, it is much more active than that, it is all about redemption. Accepting someone like Jesus accepted you is an act of aggressive, world-changing love like the Lord’s.

Jesus concentrates this aggressive, world-changing love in the church until the church gets mass and pulls other people into mutual acceptance. But receiving someone where they are and respecting the light they have is also a weapon for goodness every day among people who don’t have intimacy with God or his people.

Like Paul said, the acceptance we have been shown by Jesus is the kind we should show. Jesus died and rose so that HE would be the Lord of all. Judging people as if we were the Lord is the reason Jesus had to die and rise, so He could gain his own authority and undo all that judgment with his world-changing acceptance. People will stand before Jesus and he is all about making them stand. If we’re moving with the Lord, we are doing that, too.

Using acceptance as a tool for spreading redemption

In Romans 14 and 15, Paul is mainly talking about accepting a person who is weak in faith.  This mainly means that he or she has a tender conscience. They can be drawn into behavior that makes them feel guilty – either before God or others. Their faith is not resilient enough to stand up to pressure or argument. They may not have a lot of light or strength or love. So even though their conscience might tell them they should not take their clothes off, if you ask them, they might take them off. So don’t ask them. If they are alcoholic or just think drinking is wrong for them, they might be thrown into a problem if you, their trusted friend, served them a drink. Don’t do that. Stuff like that.

File:Messene, Agora 2015-09 (5).jpg
Ruins of the agora in Messina, likely area for the temple meat market.

The example in Paul’s mind is all about meat that is sold at the pagan temple’s butcher shop. Some people don’t think they should eat demon-tainted meat, either because it might infect them, or because it is beneath them, or because their pagan mother-in-law might see them doing it and think they are violating their morals. Paul considers this a weak version of faith.

Paul, when he is just being himself,  doesn’t care what people think and knows meat belongs to God. And he blesses it before he eats it anyway, so any demon influence is eradicated. I think he quite likes being strong and taking control of his temple-sold meat and eating it with gusto in the name of Jesus in the face of any so-called god that might lay claim to it. So he is talking to himself as much as anyone else. Because it is really even stronger to not act strong, like God acts weak for us. I’ll be “weak” if being “strong” injures someone’s conscience and set them back. If you’re having dinner with people of weak conscience, don’t serve them temple meat. And yes, you need to be aware of who it is who has problems with temple meat, as best you can. Just because you don’t know doesn’t make you any less responsible for messing someone up.

Paul is hardly saying, “Just keep quiet and don’t offend anyone.” I don’t think anyone thinks Paul is never disputatious! His whole letter to the Romans has been one long argument! The goal is not to avoid disputes altogether, it is to use acceptance as a redemption tool.

The heart of the matter is that is makes sense to err on the side of being overly accepting since that is how Jesus is with us. We aren’t avoiding conflict, just like God doesn’t avoid conflict with us. But our conflicts with others, just like God’s with us, should be based in an underlying love that accepts another person as someone God loves, someone Jesus died for and is someone Jesus is in the process of transforming. No one gets damned – certainly not for whether they think driving emission-spewing vehicles is acceptable or not, or whether they break your heart with their faithlessness, or upend you with their mindless sin, or torment you with their unprocessed psychology.

The strong should accept the weak

I tend to take Paul’s admonition to its logical extreme. He says the strong should accept the weak. I presume everyone’s faith is weak. I presume everyone’s conscience is as challenged as mine, even if they look strong and even if they think they are strong and I should not be presuming they have weak faith. I think we all have something that makes our conscience tender. It is always something. So it makes sense to start out assuming that I don’t know what I might be doing to someone. That makes me trust God, and it helps me not to trust my judgment too much.

So let’s get as practical as we can,

  • since you have to go home and re-accept your wife or husband after hearing this, even though you feel a lot of judgment about all the disputable things they do.
  • since you need to go back to work and deal with that obnoxious person you have been telling stories about.
  • since you need to go on the sidewalk and meet up with a person who looks suspiciously like they might do something objectionable if you looked at them.

We all need to develop an aggressive acceptance that changes the judgment people normally live under into salvation and grace. We are making a safe place to explore and express God’s love when we start with someone where they are starting whenever we meet them and hope for their best in Christ, even if they are clueless about Jesus.

Very briefly, here are two of many things in the scripture passage that we can do that will help us develop and use this acceptance.

Make it a rule to Accept the one who is weak in faith…without passing judgment on disputable matters.

Most things that bother you just do not matter to God. Stop noticing what people are doing that seems wrong to you. Everyone will stand before God, not you, and the Lord is able to make him or her stand

Most things that bug us don’t matter that much, most things we want to hold on to don’t matter that much, but every person does matter. Even for the most toxic person, God has a plan in mind for what to do next to help them stand and to stop them from cutting the legs out from others. If you do not presume that and see them accordingly, it will be hard to accept them. That applies to yourself, too, since you need to treat yourself like God treats you.

Someone is going to bother you in the next half hour or so. I may be doing it now by bringing that up. Don’t just swallow being bugged or avoid noting how messed up they are – accept them like God accepts you. You’ll feel better; the world will be better. And you will certainly have a better place to have a conflict, if one is necessary.

Accept the one who is weak in faith…make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way… make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

Don’t merely react well, be a proactive accepter. Be strategic. If not strategic, then at least considerate. If not considerate, then at least not a pain in the neck.

Paul wants us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Eurocentric societies have been all about power, all about competition, all about blame, all about fear of not getting what we want or all about fear of not being respected for who we are. Our minds are infected and in need of renewing. In contrast to Eurocentric ways, Jesus insists on a new mindset of love, born God’s love which graces us all day. We didn’t know God’s acceptance, but Jesus has made it known and is making it known to us. So we have something good to do every day. We make peace. We build people up.

We need to make up our mind to accept one another like Jesus accepts us — do it and learn to love it. It won’t do much good to look like you accept someone on the outside but you judge them when you are talking to someone else, or hold on to their badness in your heart. Being outwardly nice it better than not being nice, but it is not the life-changing acceptance that Paul is describing.

An influx of migrant children tests the preparedness of NYC schoolsWe need to take this habit with us into the street, too. For instance, there are laws about discriminating against Spanish-speakers. They aren’t working. But we are not necessarily working that well either. Spanish speakers inhabit our neighborhood, but they are still invisible to a lot of us. I won’t suggest that each of us can undo this invisibility, but we could plan to look at someone and smile on the sidewalk – at least have that much proactive acceptance! Say “Hi.” Same goes for moments with our landlords or our  clientele. Same with the police and security guards. Same with the rich people and with the people working out at Sweat across the street. They are all potential brothers and sisters.

Paul is working hard to help us react well and help us act well. Just make sure to NOT think you can follow that law well and accomplish it. Accepting others starts with being accepted by God as he aggressively seeks us out in Jesus Christ and connects in love. It was hard to do that, and Lord knows we keep making it hard on him. Accepting someone who is weak in faith is hard because it is that good.

If creation were friendly, how would you love?

It is not that easy to be a human, easy to be married, or easy to love your neighbor as yourself when you forget to love yourself. And it is strangely easy to just forget about love altogether.

John O'Donohue: How he loved and how he died - Irland News
John O’Donohue (1956-2008)

Sometimes, when I am attempting marriage counseling, I would like to send the couple off with John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (1998/2022) until they can feel the possibility of another context for loving than the one they inherited from America or their  traumatized and confused parents.

A soul friend to yourself and others

When O’Donohue begins his lovely book, he tries to describe a place in which to live that is hard for postmodern people to imagine. He wants us to return to a lost place the Celts knew well. He says of them:

“Their sense of ontological friendship yielded a world of experience imbued with a rich texture of otherness, ambivalence, symbolism, and imagination. For our sore and tormented separation, the possibility of this imagination and unifying friendship is the Celtic gift. “

Every marriage will be better if the partners have a sense of “ontological friendship.” That is, the sense of living IN Friendship with a capital F. That is, not sorting out the world or trying to get some power over it, but being a welcome and welcoming part of it — curious, receptive, awestruck, and creative. If we listened to our mate (and everyone, of course) from that context, it would be great.

Instead, we often come to our relationships from our “sore and tormented separation.” And the way we evaluate one another’s words more than feeling with someone beyond their words keeps us wounding others and creating distance. Sometimes I try to force a partner into a new way to listen and they realize they really do not want to give up their wound or their distance. If they lose their aloneness, they are not sure who they will be. Moving into an unknown place with trust in God and others is one of the things O’Donohue wants us to relearn.

John O’Donohue can’t help being poetic. When I bought Anam Cara (“Soul Friend”), I have to admit I was disappointed to find out it was not a collection of his poems. But as I read, I realized I was not disappointed after all, because his prose is basically poetry. I have arranged his following paragraph as a poem. In it he offers two important things I wish couples would learn so their conversation and experience of each other could get closer to the longing of their hearts.

If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us.
We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person or deed can still.
To be wholesome, we must remain truthful to our vulnerable complexity.
In order to keep our balance, we need to hold
the interior and exterior,
visible and invisible,
known and unknown,
temporal and eternal,
ancient and new,
together.

No one else can undertake this task for you.
You are the one and only threshold of an inner world.
This wholesomeness is holiness.
To be holy is to be natural, to befriend the worlds that come to balance in you.
Behind the façade of image and distraction,
each person is an artist in this primal and inescapable sense.
Each one of us is doomed and privileged
to be an inner artist who carries and shapes
a unique world.

Interiority

Our “vulnerable complexity” takes time in silence and vulnerable dialogue to form an “interiority” that is fearless and pliable enough to connect with someone else. To have a better marriage, explore yourself.

Since we, unlike the Celts, generally live in an unfriendly world, we struggle to be friendly and struggle even more to get some friendliness. We’re very external these days: a picture on social media, a presentation at an interview, a constant smile (or fear of one) that is always looking for a safe place to land. All that energy pouring out leaves us accustomed to emptiness, but hungry.

I heard a person say once they broke up with a long-term dating partner because they both realized they just did not have enough substance to give to a relationship. They were both hungry, but they had no food to share, they were starving together. But their brilliant, honest analysis did not still their hearts. Being truthful about often being out of balance and hopeful about reality beyond our control often provides the stillness where we can be known to ourselves and others.

Picture
Fleurs et mains by Pablo Picasso

Threshold

To have a good relationship, we need some wholesomeness to share. That holiness develops when we accept we are “doomed and privileged” to carry and shape the unique life we have been given. We are the threshold into the unique territory that is each of us. Holiness/wholeness is being formed in us – or not. No matter how many SUV commercials lure us to look for some rare wilderness where we will have an external experience that nourishes us, it will always be a false hope. The wilderness is in us.

People say the pandemic made everything that was getting bad get worse. I think one of the things it made worse was our fear. There is a lot of talk lately about how a child’s freedom to play has been declining since the 1980’s. You may have never been allowed to play on your own recognizance by your fearful parents and now you are not confident enough to goof around with your mate. You’re frustrated that what you think should come naturally just doesn’t. It feels difficult to welcome someone over the threshold.

The huge complex being built at Broad and Washington in Philadelphia is mostly studio and one bedroom apartments. We don’t even plan for families, partners or groups anymore. We’ve institutionalized fearful aloneness. Part of the reason we are so alone is we are conditioned to keep people on the other side of the threshold of our hearts. We could justly blame that attitude on the world around us, but when we do we are more likely to be subject to the unfriendly, unbalanced world within us. Acting in faith and friendship with God, ourselves and others is the beginning of being the artists we are created to be.

Friendly creation

Our interiority will haunt us” and “You are the one and only threshold of an inner world” could seem very threatening if we are committed to living alone, or just trying to survive an unfriendly world. It surprises me how many marriage partners feel resigned to their “sore and tormented separation.”

But O’Donohue inspires me by telling a truth I think we can feel. We bring beautiful things together in ourselves. We create wonder alongside God when we love others. The world is on our side, providing for and encouraging my wholeness.

When I bring that view of myself and my partner to our dialogue our “sense” of “ontological friendship” brings us together. It might even allow us to play. It would undoubtedly improve the depth and pleasure of sex. And it will eat away at the fear that is eating away at us.

The sad history of Christians co-opted by the powerful

The good things Jesus creates and recreates in the world are always threatened by some power that wants to co-opt them or just eliminate their alternativity. The history of the church being co-opted keeps repeating itself.

Way back in 1990 I had the amazing privilege to travel to Honduras and El Salvador with MCC where I met some Jesus followers who were hard to co-opt. It was the first of several immersion trips that have changed and enriched my life. The visit took place two years before the civil war in El Salvador (1969-92) officially ended, and ten years after Oscar Romero was martyred. It was less than a year after six Jesuit priests were murdered for speaking out against the government of El Salvador and advocating for the poor.

Jon Sobrino in 2015

On the trip I met the seventh priest, Jon Sobrino, who had been teaching missionary students in Thailand about liberation theology when his housemates and caretakers were attacked and killed. He was gracious, sober, and still grieving the loss. When he heard we were Americans, before long he said, “I can never go there again.” He had recently been interviewed on U.S. TV about the scandalous actions of the death squad. “It is too, debilitating, too tempting” he said, or something to that effect. “It is a spiritual desert which thinks it is an oasis.” Sobrino could not be co-opted by the media machine, or wealthy donors, or the colossally power. But people tried to exploit him for his story, to reduce his suffering to “news.”

Ever since then, he has been an inspiration for soul-keeping for me, as in “What does it profit you to gain the whole world, at the cost of your soul?” I wish for you the same conviction and courage Sobrino continues to display.

In the history of Christianity, it is amazing how the best people are often co-opted by the established powers: the government, the media, corporations, the church, etc. They lose the battle Sobrino has regularly won. They bend their freedom to the rules. They dim their inspiration for the fearful. They lose their courage in the face of the gullible herd. They let their joy be stolen and their best selves conformed and compromised. Or they just get rolled over, as many would say is just what happened to Jesus.

I’m especially thinking of two of my favorite examples from the past: Teresa of Kolkata and Francis of Assisi. I’ll mention the Evangelicals, too. The movement Francis led (d. 1226 at the beginning of European capitalism) is quickly taken over and neutered by the church even before he dies. Teresa (d. 1997 during the flowering of neoliberalism) is boxed like another brand by the media machine and I think the exposure dims her light. The American Evangelical church plummeted in influence and authority when it was co-opted by the empire’s ways and means, especially during the pandemic. It’s division into “left” and “right” has to be one of the main reasons there are more “nones” than white Evangelicals for he first time this year.

Teresa

Mother Teresa’s media presence was wildly successful in raising consciousness and funding her work. But I still wonder if her conversion of the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was also a means of him converting her, too. His book Something Beautiful for God (1971) still sells over 100 copies a month in its “beatification edition” from 2003! He was a boon to her and she to him, as far as making money goes.

I love how she gets her message out. But I wonder what the screen is doing to her: the faux intimacy, the chattiness, the objectification and reductionism. Perhaps her faith transcends the screen. Or maybe the screen reduces it to another story in its world of truthiness. Here is an example of her on screen with Muggeridge from 1971. [link]

Francis

In 1266, a generation after St. Francis died, the general chapter meeting in Paris ordered Franciscans everywhere to destroy their writings about Francis written before the minister general’s, that is Bonaventure’s, new biography was published. It was a breathtaking attempt to “control the narrative.” Twenty years earlier, the chapter had asked people who had known Francis to write down all their memories, which they did, copies of which survived the purge. These surviving records are what Jean Paul Sabatier rediscovered and included in his biography of Francis in 1894. I recently read an annotated version by John Sweeny: The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis: 120th Anniversary Edition. It is an inspiring and sobering book.

Francis died a sad, transcendent man. His prolonged stay in Syria after inserting himself into the battles of the Fifth Crusade, created a rumor he was dead and caused a brother to go find him.  Upon his return, Francis found the “Cardinal Protector” of the Franciscans, Ugolino di Conti (later Pope Gregory IX) had imposed the Benedictine rule on Clare’s community and influenced the men Francis left in charge to loosen their vow of poverty and act more like other monks.

Sabatier says:

It was the first movement of the old spirit against the new. It was the effort of people who unconsciously, I am willing to assume, made religion an affair of rite and observance, instead of seeing it, like St. Francis, as the conquest of freedom that makes us free in all things. This is the freedom that leads each soul to obey the divine and mysterious power that the flowers in the field adore, that the birds of the air bless, that the symphony of the stars praises, and that Jesus of Nazareth called Abba, or, Father.

For the last five ears of his life Francis endured the incremental co-option of his brotherhood into the orders of the church, their freedom mediated by the Pope. By the time of Bonaventure, his life was a glorious but impractical relic. Sick, exhausted, and leaning into death, bearing the wounds of stigmata, Francis began to move toward his desired resting place at Portiuncula. He said good-bye to Mt. Verna and spent time recuperating at San Damiano with Clare’s community. As he gained strength there, he composed the famous “Canticle of the Sun.” Here are the SVD Brothers and their recent version. [link]

Just four years after Francis dictated his last will and died, Pope Gregory declared the Brothers Minor were not bound to observe it. His reinterpretation of the rule Francis never wanted to write, resulted in a divided order: the “Brothers of the Common Observance” and the “Spirituals.” The latter were disciplined and one was even killed for wanting to be a Francis-like Franciscan. Francis’ first disciple, Bernard of Quintavalle, went into hiding for two years as he was being hunted.

Evangelicals

You may see your own experience in the lives of these saints. You may have tried on a simple faith and watched it eroded by the ways of the world. You may have been in a freedom-feeling community and watched it driven into the divisions of politics and power-seeking. I have experienced several versions of those ills. Next year I expect a book to come out that recounts the life and transition of a church I loved and led for decades. In some sense, I think it may be the same old story.

The Evangelicals, as a movement, began with a fervor for truth and a passion for evangelism. They made a huge difference in the world and continue to do so. But then Jerry Falwell (d. 2007) and others decided they needed to “take back” America. I think, as Sabatier might, they did that because America had taken them back. Their conformity to the ways to the empire led Falwell’s descendants to back the godless Trump to lead them. And their leaders have become more Trumpy ever since.

I keep asking Francis’ question these days, “Who are you Lord? And who am I?” I still burst into songs in the sunlight. I still feel my freedom in Christ and exercise it. I still care about and care for the poor. But am I just a part of the American story? Just another part of the news cycle? Did the powers succeed in taking over and ordering my world? Do I despair of an alternative now that an author will consign my past to history, into some reduction, like Bonaventure tried to do with Francis? We need to keep praying those questions.

Meanwhile, Jon Sobrino keeps getting disciplined by Rome for sticking with his decidedly anti-establishment teaching, saying things like,

[R]eality is known—in this case oppression and liberation, suffering and hope—in the disposition of taking charge of these realities in a praxis (en la disposición a
encargarse de ellas en una praxis), to carry these realities (a cargar con ellas)—running risks and the persecution that reality generates—and shouldering the weight of these realities (dejándose cargar por ellas)—accepting gratefully the kindness, generosity, and solidarity that there is in reality, and above all in the underside of history.

Jesus, Teresa, and Francis all built an alternative from the underside of history. No matter how many times those kind of people get rolled over, they are likely to rise again. Brother stone will cry out in praise or sister bird will sing the truth if the humans are silenced. But the Spirit incarnate in the body of Christ is hard to control for long. I don’t think the powers will keep it down. The creation will have to keep groaning as God awaits the next outburst of the light of the world from the Lord’s co-workers.

Division Test : Rivalry poisons God’s farm

This was a message for the church in September of 2001, not long after 9/11

It happened again. I sat in front of MTV gape-jawed the other day. I flipped to it during the commercials on another channel and I happened upon a new video of an Elton John song called “I Want Love.”

I admit, I am regularly tormented by MTV, but I don’t think I have ever seen or heard such a misleading, stick-in-your-head little pop poem as this song — and Elton is probably scheduled to perform it at the Kimmel Arts Center when he’s over there to help open it in December! I’m almost afraid to play it for you, but I have to. Because we need to be able to differentiate between the love of Christ and this false love Elton is overwhelmed by. And even though our scripture is not speaking directly about this tonight, at the base of what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 3 is his own torment about the plight of the Elton Johns of the world and their influence. Listen to cravings Elton describes as he sings through the vacant eyes of Robert Downey Jr.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin are probably writing about the “love” of drugs and how the obsession with them kills people on the inside with easy ecstasy. Robert Downey Jr. had about ruined his career with drug use and this video is the start of his resurrection. Maybe all the MTV viewers get this backstory, but I am afraid more of them admired the song for  “owning” the “reality” of being isolated from true love and being “brave” about it, as follows:

I want love on my own terms. Don’t be nice to me because I can’t feel anything. I’m dead in places where other people are liberated. Don’t make me submit to anything. Don’t ask me to be surrounded by anything. It is what it is.

That’s the kind of  I-want-it-the-way-I-want-it “love” scaring Paul when he is writing to the Corinthian church. In chapter 13 he gives them a little love song of his own, which is a worthy alternative to Elton’s. But here, in chapter 3, he is just trying to get people to look at the symptoms of caving-in to what is worst about us as people. He is not judging people, or saying we should never struggle, he’s just trying to get the love of Jesus at the center of inevitable troubles we face and cause.

Elton’s kind of “love,” the kind of relating he’s describing, kills souls, as I think Elton knows. He can see it makes him dead in places where other men feel liberated. I see that kind of unlove killing whole churches which should be all about liberation. When struggle turns to strife and trouble turns to trauma, we’re into the kind of thinking and acting that killed Jesus. Thank God Jesus rises again! That’s chapter 15.

So let’s check out 1 Corinthians 3. Here’s an outline of what Paul is saying to them, and, by extension, to us:

  1. The jealousy and strife you are demonstrating are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. (1-4)
  2. So let me help you out with some Jesus-type-thinking. How the world was designed to work looks like this: We are all fellow-workers with God as he recreates the world in what might be likened to a huge farm reclamation project. So don’t mess up the parts of the farm that are already reclaimed. (5-17)
  3. To sum it up, here is the reality you live in. You’ve got it all when you have Jesus, so don’t settle for less. Why would we compare and grasp for more when God has already given us everything in Jesus? Pass the division test. (18-23)

The jealousy and strife you are demonstrating are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. (vv. 1-4)

Paul says (I’m paraphrasing):

“People, I won’t talk to you as if you are spiritual because you are worldly–mere infants in Christ.  I gave you milk, not solid food, because  you weren’t ready for solids yet. And you apparently are still not ready.  You’re still stuck in pre-Jesus habits of the heart. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not just like the world has always been? Are you not acting like humans out of relationship with God? When one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ what’s new about you?”

Can we agree on this? Jealousy and strife are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. One thing, among many things, that has really made me stop and think since September 11 is that many people are amazed that anyone could hate the U.S. so much as to bomb the Trade Centers. It is as if seeing people fight each other surprises them; it’s as if they missed the history of the last century. It is like they never heard themselves going off on their children, or never had anyone go off on them, or never stopped talking to someone because they would just as soon they moved away and were never heard from again. It is like they didn’t know that thousands of children die each day of starvation because no one cares for them. It is like they never heard of the Native American eradication project in the 1800’s in our own country.

We can be so blind. We really need a savior. Jealousy and quarreling should surprise no one. They are our mother’s milk. Most of us think fighting our rivals is an essential way to get justice, even as a way to have a self. We don’t think anything bad is happening among us sometimes, because we think it is “normal.” But it kills us and it kills the church.

The whole point of being the church is to undo this “carnality, this being-a-human-without-God-lifestyle” in us. The love of Jesus is at work among us to free us from being stuck in the world-as-usual. Paul is telling these good people that the rivalries they think are normal and right are going to kill their church. They will close the door to the Holy Spirit in their hearts and close the door to the Holy Spirit in the midst of them as a church if they keep it up. We need to be open to the Spirit of God to feel anything but we are pitted against this group, or excluded from that group, or suspicious or jealous of that group.

We have a lot of love here, but you can see how much we need the Holy Spirit of God as people assess their rivals and feel jealous or opposed to others. Just listen to some innuendo or actual quotes I’ve heard lately:

The artists in our church don’t care about racial reconciliation.
Center City people talk about living simply but they obviously don’t.
I haven’t been to worship in ages because there aren’t any good churches in Philadelphia.
A few people in the church make all the decisions.
I’m not in a cell because I doubt that people would be deep enough to handle how I share my soul.
I’m not going clear up to Germantown. No one goes there.
I don’t fit in because everyone is so young.
I don’t fit because everyone is a Democrat.
I don’t fit in because I am not such an evangelical Christian.

It goes on.

I don’t know whether those things are true or not. But I do know they cause strife. You may have gotten a little steam building up in you just thinking someone said one of them. They make for quarreling. And I know, even deeper, that they are often spoken under the spell of jealousy.

Jealousy is hostility toward someone, often a knee-jerk feeling about a rival who seems to have an advantage over you. I think we are all born jealous of God’s advantage over us. Jealousy let loose in God’s church, where the Holy Spirit resides, is a disaster. It is the anti-love that acts like a computer worm taking over your reactions. Jealousy makes you suspicious, it makes you guarded and defensive. Jealousy makes you competitive, makes your rivalries more important than your contribution to building community. Jealousy makes what others seem to have and what you lack the most important thing to you.

Paul says, “I can’t even talk about God to you! When you pass the division test, maybe we can get somewhere. But as long as jealousy is making you all rivals and not family, we’re back at square one, and even that square is in danger.”

So let me help you out with some Jesus-type-thinking. How the world was designed to work looks like this: We are all fellow-workers with God as he recreates the world in what might be likened to a huge farm reclamation project. So don’t mess up the parts of the farm that are already reclaimed. (vv. 5-17)

This is the idea: God is reclaiming the world from the wilderness. In Jesus, he is the sower, seeds are growing, and the farm is being tilled in territory that was once overgrown with weeds, infested and unproductive. It is like God’s farm, the earth, was overtaken by the jungle, like one of those Mayan cities in Yucatan that Gwen and I saw. One temple near Copan was so covered by vegetation that it looked like steep hill, not a pyramid (like in the pic). The Corinthian church is like part of God’s farm that has been placed back in cultivation and it is growing good things. Paul says, you’ve got to keep it free of weeds. Rivalry is like kudzu. It takes you over. It tangles you up and chokes out love. If you are one of those people who are forming a group around yourself, or even if you just are stubborn enough to want “love” the way you want it, you are like some big thistle of division planted in the middle of everyone’s life.

There is a lot more in these verses we could learn about, but the main thing I want to emphasize is this picture of what life is all about, because farming with God is what our church is all about. Farming is such a great organic picture and we want to thrive with the life of the Spirit growing in us. Being God’s farm is what being a cell, being a congregation and being a network of congregations is all about.

Let’s concentrate on the small group, the cell. Being God’s farm is what a cell is all about. We were discussing this at our meeting the other night. We aren’t similar people in our cell. Some of us would be natural rivals. But we are together because our common faith and love has given us this radical notion that we can grow something new in the world. It crosses divisions. We are God’s fellow-workers in this. So take note about how you relate to cells. If you like to go there and argue so you can feel like someone, you could be a weed. If you want them to give you love the way you want it and get mad if they disappoint you, you could be a thistle. If you can’t even get next to a group of people face to face at all and love them for Jesus sake and for the sake of reclaiming the farm with him, you may need to check out how he wants you to get involved another way.

To sum it up, here is the reality you live in. You’ve got it all when you have Jesus, so don’t settle for less. Why would we compare and grasp for more when God has already given us everything in Jesus? Pass the division test. (vv. 18-23)

Paul thinks his argument is pretty compelling. And don’t misunderstand him, he writes in a particular style that seems sort of combative. But it is just a style. He’s trying to get across God’s heart, not just win an argument. He says, in essence: If you are hearing me, if you agree that division kills and God has a plan for his farm, then, let’s give up the rivalries! All things are ours, whether Paul or Apollos or Peter or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are ours. We are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

Jesus has opened up the way to eternity. The best is ours — even the best of these different groups in Corinth, the best of Paul or Apollos or Peter, or whoever or whatever, is ours. We don’t have to fight for it. God is delivering what is best to us. He started by giving himself in His son.

I think this is a profound way to live and I am trying to go with it. For instance: Periodically people ask me “what are you guys?” Maybe they mean, “What denomination are you against?” If they wonder if we are Presbyterians, I say, “Basically.” Baptists? “Of course.” Pentecostal? “Yes.” 

When I answer that way I am not being cute, because all are mine. One woman asked me if I were a priest. “Pastor” didn’t make any sense to her. So I finally said, “Sure, I’m sort of a priest.” I am of Christ. Who cares about being this or that other, I have the best of them all.

We are looking to be the new humanity without race or class, where there is no Jew or Arab, low-class or high-class, majority or minority, male or female, simple-liver or entrepreneur but Christ is all and is in all. In our church, where Jesus is in his temple, we are trying to get our minds and hearts around something bigger and deeper. Sometimes we call it the “both/and,” but that is too philosophical. In Christ it is just all – no balance necessary because Jesus personally holds everything together in love.

I don’t know what all this is meaning “practically” to you.

  • I at least think it should mean you look around the room tonight with Jesus eyes rather than the old, killer-instinct eyes of sorting out your rivals.
  • We should at least ask ourselves if we can pass a basic division test to see if we are more than just pre-Jesus humans.
  • At best it could practically mean that we can all breathe easier, now. We’ve got it all. All we can do is get better at accessing all that God is trying to get to us.

So we can let go of that painful, disappointing process of trying to find ourselves in comparison to another person, for better or worse. And we can stop trying to get for ourselves the life that God is desperate to give to us. We’ve got it. Connected to Jesus we have access to all of it, and it is just going to get more complete. I want that love.

Francis and the Living Stone

As I rummaged around in past messages I prepared for the church, I came across this one from 2000 focusing on Francis of Assisi and building a church of “living stones.” My interest was heightened because I am reading a classic book about him: The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis. I thought you might like to be reminded of him, too. In these days of strained community, he is an inspiration.

Bernardo becoming a living stone

Francis of Assisi and others who went before him in what is called the “monastic movement” became strange mentors to me as a follower of Jesus. Francis’ life and his legacy, in particular, reached across 700 years and lit a fire in me that hasn’t died out yet. I read a book about him once called The Last Christian and I can appreciate what the author was saying. He had a very passionate, New Testament, close to the earth, filled-with-the-Spirit kind of life.

In his early twenties Francis liberally used his privilege as a rich man’s son, and was quite the life of the party in Assisi. He was known for his poetry, songs, and for leading the scandalous line dance called the farandole. Call it unfortunate or blessed, he and his friends made up a generation of young warriors who were sent off by their fathers to pillage a neighboring walled city. The war, and Francis’ sickness (or was it a desertion?), left him a changed young man.

In the middle of his desperation, God somehow revealed himself. She didn’t reveal herself through the church — the institution which had blessed the war and received the spoils. It was through nature. Whenever you see a lawn ornament of Saint Francis (and I have one in my living room, if you’d like to), there is always a bird perched on him somewhere and often a bunny at his feet. That’s much cuter than necessary, since his most spectacular association with animals is with a man-eating wolf. But it is a reminder that he sort of got the message straight from God, through the sun, moon, stars, fire and water.

In my twenties I discovered a movie about St. Francis that brought him home to me even more. The 1970’s was a time when a lot of people were acting out how sick they were of their parents’ materialism and war, and a lot of them were again finding Jesus outside the established church. I was very influenced by the whole movement of the Spirit that was going on. Then I saw this movie that put it all together for me. Here was the Francis, about whom I’d read, in a movie directed by Franco Zeffirelli with a lot of hippie trappings called Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

But it wasn’t just the cool-at-the-time packaging of Francis that got to me, it was the timeless content. The word of Jesus breathed truth into the first century, into the 1200’s, and into 1975, and the Spirit of God is doing it today. I hope the following clip from the movie helps draw you into what God is doing in every age.

In this scene, Francis quotes from our scripture for today from 1 Peter. “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.”  After Francis left his parents to live free as a beggar, he heard a message from God, “Rebuild my church.” He took this message quite literally and started rebuilding a run-down church building out in the country. As Zeffirelli tells it (and who knows exactly how something happened in the 12th century?) Francis’ old drinking buddies and friends began to come looking for him. They found him doing this project. In the clip we’re going to see, one of his future main men, Bernardo, comes to see him. Bernardo has just returned from the Crusades and is disillusioned. He has a choice to make – follow his desire to be real, or get roped into the politics and power-grabbing of the powers that be.

During their conversation, Francis apparently begins to see that the idea of rebuilding the church is not much about buildings at all, it is about people built into a spiritual house. It is about a new community based on Jesus and his ways, not just on his own personal convictions about rejecting the ways of the world. You can see the light dawn as Francis talks to Bernardo about a building stone he’d like to have. Bernardo gets the idea that the cornerstone he’s talking about just might be himself.

Obviously, it is a very European message coming from this movie. At the time of Francis there were already a world-full of acceptable versions and depths of Christianity around. I don’t think one size fits all. Sentiments from medieval Europe may not play too well in Asia or Texas or even in my neighborhood. But in every culture and every style of thinking, I believe Peter is saying the same thing. It is the same thing Francis heard, that Bernardo heard, that I hope you will dare to hear again tonight. It is the bookend phrases of our passage tonight. Very simple:

As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him– you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood…Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.

The living stone rejected

Jesus rejected, Francis rejected, Bernardo getting on the wrong side of Emperor Otto of Brunswick, you chosen by God but rejected by people — this is normative. Followers of Jesus inevitably are called out of the world as it is, as it lives without Jesus as king, and they are built into what amounts to a countercultural community – not anti-cultural or supra-cultural community, just a group of strange people. People filled with eternity are foreigners in this passing away world. Whenever the body of Christ gets comfortable in the easy chair of any culture, it loses its heart. If it isn’t strange to the world it is strange to God.

It is so hard to be strange, that evangelists have often offered workarounds. In Mexico they made it easy for Aztecs to follow Jesus by amalgamating European saints to Aztec gods. In the U.S. they made the church as individualistic as the Declaration of Independence and as bottom-line-oriented as our brand of capitalism. Presenting Jesus in the robes of any culture, kills the whole thing, as far as I can see. I tie my heart together with the people all through the history of the church who have gathered together around Jesus to listen to him, no matter what habits they had from the culture they came from. They did not hate themselves or their ancestry; they just loved Jesus more. Jesus is transcultural – he’s alive in all cultures and subject to none. That’s what I hope you will go for, too.

Peter teaches like we are his family or comrades:

Brothers and sisters, my friends, we were chosen, made alive, and we are being built into the place where the Spirit of God lives. We are the people of God, now. We received his mercy. It makes us strange. So come out that world and don’t go back to be it. When you interact, love it like God does, and to call people into life with you.

This scripture has huge implications, but two main ones stick out.

We all need to keep letting our minds get changed about who we are.

This is the main thing a culture defines for you – who you are. Culture is just “how we do things, what kind of people we are.” So we say, “I am an American. We know we  organize our country around the pursuit of profit and property. We die for individual freedom. Etc.

But the main thing Jesus defines for you is also – who am I? I am a child of God, a member of his family, a part of his household. I am a citizen of the kingdom. I am a valued part of the body of Christ. This mercy I have received demands a response. Etc.

Our pre-Jesus culture and the desires it built into us, needs to get subordinated to the king. There’s a big interior process that needs to keep maturing.

How we decide what to do needs to be transformed, too.

What we do gets launched from our identities as one of the people of God. We are not just our own. We were bought by Jesus and we were transferred to his kingdom and we were given an assignment in the family business. It isn’t all about you; it is also all about God and all of us. That’s going to make a big difference in how you spend your time and decide your schedule. When we decide what to do, we will consider the people of God in general, and the people of God specific – our Church and our church.

Some people see this as an imposition on their freedom, if they still see life as coming from themselves instead of from God and through his body. They make transactions with their time and resources between the church and themselves because the church is something and they are something else.

But once we were no people, but now we are the people of God; that truth demands attention. We have the constant challenge of seeing how we, in union with God, interact as a body and interface with the people we meet — especially those driven by society meeting the undriven.

I’m boiling down a huge discussion topic, maybe you should talk about it in your cells again. I just hope you get this. We are into something new, strange, other-worldly and laced with the Spirit of God.  It feels real to me, and exciting, like I found a piece of meat I could really sink my teeth into (apologies to vegetarians). Peter is talking about life with substance, real people, being the real people of God with Jesus in their midst. I’m as hungry for that as Francis ever was.

I think the communion table is the perfect symbol at the center of this countercultural community that God keeps forming in every era and in every territory and tribe that will welcome him. Tonight we are very much a community gathered around Jesus. As we hand one another bread and then the cup we reaffirm that our desires have been freed from sin and the bondage of living without God in the world, and as we take the body and blood of Jesus from one another we are reaffirming that we are the people of God, one with the whole body throughout the world and throughout time, and one with one another, especially, face-to-face.

Slander divides: Six ways to overcome it

Trump unleashed a slanderfest and it is the one “trickle-down” principle that seems to be working. I have experienced it and a remarkable number of my clients and acquaintances in the church have experienced, it too.

Slander is not, “Someone told the truth about me and I did not like it.” That may be impolite, if they have not warned you how the truth might hurt you, but it is not slander. Slander is “character assassination.” It is when you tell a lie, share an unproven statement as fact, or provide innuendo that demeans someone’s character. In the most public sense, such damage is actionable. But slander mostly happens in small systems like the office or the church where leaders are controlling the narrative or where leaders are being taken down by unhappy or ambitious subordinates. Slander is a weapon in everyday power plays. It would be easier to recognize if everyone who wields the weapon knew they were doing it, but people believe lies and spread them as if it is righteous to do so. They also get caught in systems that will hurt them, too, if they don’t follow the latest party line/lie.

The Bible repeatedly teaches about the importance of words and the deadliness of slander. In Proverbs 16:28 it says “A perverse [person] spreads strife / And a slanderer separates intimate friends.” Slander is the spark that lights the fuse of gossip which can blow up a reputation and divide whole systems.

Slander is a hard infection to beat

It is acutely painful to be slandered, and pastors and ministry leaders are particularly easy targets. An acquaintance recently attended a church meeting at which 20+ pages of anonymous criticism of them was distributed but nothing from other people who had submitted glowing praise. Another was subjected to a secret collection of hearsay about their interactions in the office and was demoted even though the investigation was never concluded. If you have been an influencer or manager for a while, you have likely had someone publicly attack your character based upon some action or word they misconstrued or based upon their perception of something you did.  It can be devastating.

Noting someone’s unhealthy behavior, as you see it, is part of sorting out relationships. Questioning the value or validity of someone’s judgment or methods is part of improving a mission. Everyone needs feedback and probably needs to be saved from their worst traits, at times. We all deserve the respect to receive such words of “constructive criticism” within a trusting relationship — and we all need to stay open to those words, even when the process is imperfect. But character assassination is quite a another thing. If you watched the State of the Union address and listened to the aftermath, you probably felt, like I did, the country seems to be simmering in slander. The political arena, social media, workplaces, associations, marriages all seem ready to boil.

The last place in the Bible where slander is directly mentioned directly is 1 Peter 3, where he teaches:

Make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.

The way to that grown-up faith leads through a battleground for our souls as we trip over the slander thrown in our paths. Even so, the journey can be transforming, if we don’t let slander rule us. Here are steps to take toward a transformed destination.

If you are slandered, feel it

Not too long ago, I heard of an incident when someone again slandered me in public. Thank God they were doing it in a very small pond, but the nasty water lapped on my doorstep. I was angry. I think that’s a natural response to being violated. I was hurt so bad I shook with emotion. I’m not ignoring those feelings right now, even though writing about them is painful, because ignoring emotions increases the likelihood they will find an unhealthy road to travel out of their warehouse. Be angry but do not sin.

If we can acknowledge our emotions and respect them as they pass through, we won’t be tethered by the slander that aroused them – at least that is a possibility. It is better to stay anchored in who are and in what we have been given to do.

Slander is so divisive it can make us doubt ourselves. A ruthless liar can make us doubt we even know our own truth! In the midst of chaos, especially the emotional chaos triggered by slander, we must anchor in what we know is true regarding who we are, what our convictions are, and what our mission in life is.  Otherwise, we will be tossed around like a small boat in the middle of a storm.

If a cloud of slander comes down on you, it makes sense to get some practical distance. Don’t jump into an argument (like Facebook is still famous for). You might want to quarantine calls from people who will keep stirring you up.

Distance yourself emotionally too. Notice if you are ruminating on your injury or falsely being ashamed of yourself. One person I know was slandered and wouldn’t show their face in their small town for a month! The sooner we accept we can’t change what has happened and move into new territory, the better. Part of moving on might be connecting with anyone who may have been affected and explaining your situation no matter how embarrassing it may seem. Tell the truth about the lie and let it pass.

Check your perceptions and sources

One time a person felt slighted by the church and somehow got their dissatisfaction reported on in a local paper! It caused a small cyclone of recrimination and fear about our reputation. That’s what slander does and why it is such a favored tool among power-hungry people.

Before you jump to conclusions and take some vengeful action on such people, make the effort to confirm you actually know what happened. Obviously, people get misquoted in the media all the time. And gossip is not a reliable source of facts. If you can talk to the source, that would be ideal (see below). If you question what people are telling you, you might discover it is not the worst you imagine.

You can try contacting websites where slander is posted and ask them to take it down, but you may find some will demand cash and try to bully you into signing up for useless programs to “repair your reputation.”  A lot of those sites are run by borderline “scammers” themselves. Some lawyers specialize in removing lies.

Stand up for yourself

You may need the law to help you. [Here is an explanation of the Pennsylvania defamation law]. When I was defrauded by a contractor in 2020, I looked into a lawsuit. The lawyer I consulted was kind enough to tell me it would cost me much more than I would ever recover if I received anything at all. The defamation law is mostly for rich people, too.

It is not a good idea to just roll over and let a slanderous person roll over you. But fighting fire with fire might not come to a good end, either. For instance, if you get involved in addressing all the accusations in public, it might just feed the fire. You might unwittingly validate the lie and the liars by treating them with undue respect. But telling your story can make a difference. At least tell people with sympathetic ears what the truth is and let it have whatever effect it will. Don’t bottle it up.

Don’t let slanderers steal your joy. A slanderer needs that kind of power. They weren’t speaking a love language. It is not totally your fault they hurt you. If a person wants to bring you down and make you feel bad, there must be something wrong with them. So don’t live as if their lie deserves to preoccupy you. Go out on the town, hit the gym, or do whatever you enjoy doing.  Don’t let go of your accomplishments and happiness.

Gently confront the slanderer (not by text or email)

It’s amazing how often people engage in the sin of slander without realizing it. Therefore, the most loving thing you can do for all parties concerned—including the slanderer—is to gently, lovingly confront them. Such a conversation should be done in person, not over email, text, phone, or social media. In certain situations, it might be helpful to bring a friend or an outside party trusted by both of you. But it is probably best to begin by going alone (try Matthew 18!). Bringing someone else in too quickly can escalate the situation.

It’s important to go in “a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1), and not put the other on the defensive with a fault-finding or accusatory tone. Here are two ways to do this:

  • Begin with questions. This enables you to get all the facts before arriving at any conclusions, and it’s less confrontational. But don’t shy away from using the word “sin” and “slander” if that’s what it is.
  • Express vulnerability to the slanderer. This is easy to overlook since it’s not our natural tendency when dealing with someone who has hurt us. But sentences which begin with “I felt sadness/pain when…” rather than “you sinned against me when…” are more likely to “gain your brother/sister” (Matt. 18:15), which is the most important goal. Amazingly, because some people slander without realizing it, they’re genuinely surprised they’ve hurt you. Starting off with sharing your heart rather than with accusation can de-escalate the situation and produce a peaceable result.

It’s awkward and scary to confront someone. But if you can, it is better. Some people see the straightforward approach of Matthew 18 as impossible for disempowered people who have a lot to lose when confronting a person in power. But I don’t think Jesus was talking to people who could go toe-to-toe with their overlords, either. To be honest, this option may not be open to you at all, since slander is often accompanied with being cut-off, these days. The ultimate slander is being “cancelled,” isn’t it? Nevertheless, if you have the context it would be best to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

If you can’t get repentance and reconciliation at least exercise forgiveness. If we forgive those who slander us and don’t participate in their cut-off, we are less likely to be trapped in bitterness and more likely to be released into the freedom we need to make healthy decisions with a clear mind.

Trust truth

It’s sometimes right to to defend your reputation against those who have slandered you, especially if you are in a leadership role and the slander damages the business or mission. But it is often better to stay silent and let truth be your advocate in the long run. If you don’t have the character, defending it won’t make much difference, but if you do, it will probably have staying power.

Even if you do need to defend yourself, give it some time. Don’t panic. Don’t explode. Don’t be guided by fear. It is hard to say whether Paul is defending Jesus and his mission or himself (or if he should separate the two) in 1 Thess. 2 and 2 Cor. 10–13, but I can’t remember a time when defensiveness ever built love.

Slander sets off our fear and a slew of “what ifs.” But most people who hear slander can smell it. And even if they are too afraid to shout it down, they probably won’t move with it. The famous Spurgeon said: “A great lie, if unnoticed, is like a big fish out of water—it dashes and plunges and beats itself to death in a short time.” He hasn’t lived through the Trump era, but he’s probably right.

Even if our good character does not “win the argument” for us, it is better to trust truth than just fearfully fight lies. After all, it’s in the context of being maligned that Jesus says, “Have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Matt. 10:26).

It takes humility to trust, especially when we feel humiliated. Since we know all things work together for good in Christ we should give it a try. We might humbly think we could learn something from being slandered. There is probably a seed of truth in the lie, or it would not be effective. You did not do everything right. You may need improved skills. You may need better boundaries. You might recognize a ticking time bomb next time. You might see how you were codependent with a toxic person.

Even as I am letting the slanderer pass through and out of my mind and emotions, I wish them grace, I love my enemy. I don’t let them get stuck in my prayer, either, as if they should dominate that, too (and as if I will triumph over them when they repent!). Just last night I felt I was getting somewhere in this area I woke up from a dream in which I was sitting down at a table and one of my enemies was chatting with me like we were friends. My insides were definitely recovering!

Be a transformed victim

Tim Keller is famous for saying, “In Christ I’m not just more sinful than I ever dared fear, but more loved than I ever dared hope.” In Christ, each of us is a beloved child of God; right now the Spirit of God is praying for us. Jesus was slandered and killed by his enemies. He’s OK and we will be too.

I wrote the Senior paper for my history B.A. on George Whitefield. Here he is with his famous dramatic flare to make a good point to end with:

Let the name of Whitefield perish, but Christ be glorified. Let my name die everywhere, let even my friends forget me, if by that means the cause of the blessed Jesus may be promoted. . . . I am content to wait till the judgement day for the clearing up of my reputation; and after I am dead I desire no other epitaph than this, “Here lies G. W. What sort of man he was the great day will discover.”

I can almost guarantee that Whitfield did not completely think or feel all that he said. But, like me, he certainly intended to. I feel I’m good with Jesus. I feel bad when others lie about me, unjustly accuse me, or don’t bother accusing me at all and undermine my reputation in secret. But in the end, it is always being saved by grace that matters.

If you’ve got some feelings or insight about this, please leave a comment or two. Do you agree we are simmering in slander in the U.S.? Have you experienced some of it? What are you doing to recover that works for you?

Group communication “sad?” Try on some Virginia Satir.

I was in a group meeting with some wonderful people the other day. As I reflected on it this morning, I remembered Virginia Satir. She is often called the “mother of family therapy.” As a doctor of marriage and family therapy, she has done a little mothering of me, too. You can read her Wikipedia page for interesting details. Today I just want to share two things she offered the world that would improve most of the groups we are in: workplace, family  and the beleaguered church.

Virginia Satir (1916-1988)

Tell your own story

One of the things that made me think of Virginia Satir is the fact I was sounding a bit like her in our group. We were  group of Christians from around the country reflecting on a new statement about how to follow Jesus these days. (I’m reserving the name of the group because it is not the point). Like Satir, I was trying to encourage people to tell their own stories with confidence, not worrying what someone else might be thinking all the time they are sharing.

Virginia Satir knew how to share what she had to say. I have always admired her for creating a theory and forming a school of thought to explore her insights, even though, as a woman in the 1960’s to 80’s, as soon as she raised her voice, people called her “tyrannical” and considered her theories “unscientific.” She used her theories in her therapy and taught her disciples anyway, and we are still appreciating what she created.

I don’t think I agree with some significant things in her well-known declaration of self-esteem: “I Am Me,” but I am thrilled with the spirit behind it. My comrades in our group had brilliant things to say, but the present atmosphere in which we live and the captivity of  recent Christianity to modern thought induced them to pose most of what they said in relation to an imagined opponent or a critical expert. I think we should all begin, as Satir encourages us to do, with “I am me and I am okay.” Especially if one is in Christ and can say, “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus, no fear; in the Spirit I am who I am.” We don’t need to make an argument all day, even if people who don’t love us are out there somewhere, supposedly ready to take us down.

There is room for a good argument, of course, even gainst “straw” opponents. Working out common goals allows us to come from all sorts of places and end up on a mutual path. It usually takes some time and effort to get to harmony — and presenting my sacred opinion, standing alone with its chin up, is rarely the best place to start. Instead of setting up an argument with how we talk and act, I think we should begin with our own story  and receive another’s and so allow our vulnerability to seed the group (and the world!) with the possibility of real love.

Be aware of your communication style

Satir continues to be well-known today for her five communication styles. By now, you probably know your Myers-Brigs letters, your Enneagram number/wings and all sorts of  other labels that might chafe like a wool sweater sometimes. Satir’s labels came from observing families and seeing the same patterns arise again and again. She generalized the variations so people could consider how to make one another better humans, not just clutter the family system with dysfunction and debilitating pain.

As we went through our group the other day, I periodically got a glimpse of myself putting on one of these communication styles or fending off, in my mind at least, some dysfunctional style from someone else. Our group was super polite and not that intimate yet, so we were not treated to anything extreme. But our process made me wonder how the church keeps going when we are often stuck in the four less-functional styles of communicating and often despair of getting to the best style (Or think we are already best, but no one will tell us we aren’t because they think too poorly of themselves to reveal their experience!).

I aspired to be a “leveler” in the group according to Satir’s model. The leveler is “congruent,” meaning their internal states match what is communicated externally. For Satir, that means they are OK being themselves and are open to others being themselves. They are aware of self, other and context in a way that allows them to mentalize about what is happening instead of just reacting out of fear. In the chart (that blurry thing at the left), the leveler’s stance s open, arms welcoming, legs  relaxed, and their facial expressions and tone match their internal state. We are not all likely to be the “non-anxious presence” we hear about all the time, but trying to stay aware helps a group stay connected, even when times are hard. Satir followers often quote the Roman poet Horace to that end: “When things are steep, remember to stay level-headed.”

Satir had first hand knowledge of how communication styles could hurt. In the “family” of the first family therapists, the blamers accused her of all sorts of things, the placaters fawned over her, the rationalists were disappointed that she did not come up with a theoretical model to meet their expectations, and the distracters considered her irrelevant.

You may have had the same experience during a Zoom call for work this week, or in a small group of the church, or at your family dinner table.  I was having a little taste of all the dysfunctional styles coming at me in my group the other day (and coming from me, too!). In the chart above, you can see that each style is missing congruity with something — and irrelevant misses them all!

The four off-kilter types

Blamers defend by pointing the finger at someone else. They use words like “you should have” or “if you would try harder, then I wouldn’t have to…” or ” I do it right so this couldn’t have been my fault.”  Most Christians are clever enough to do this subtley. They would be more likely to quote the Bible or the latest critic of the church to put you in your place, which leaves them blameless. They set an atmosphere on edge.

Computers (the super-reasonable or rational) often position themselves with their arms crossed and use super reasonable words, like “I tried to tell you”, or “according to so-in-so.” or “when we last had this discussion.” They defend by ignoring feelings and other information, relying on logic to sound all put  together. In the chart above, they are all context, but not personal or relational. They make an atmosphere feel distant or cold.

When I get around a group of Christian leaders, it is often the blamers and computers versus the placators and distracters. That might just be the way of all flesh. But it also might be becasue their family systems operated like this. Married couples are more likely than not to have a “pursuing” partner and a “withrdrawing” partner. The withdrawers often have communication styles like placators and distractors. Truth without love kills. Love without truth lies.

Placators defend by trying to marginalize conflict in order to protect themselves or stabilize relationships. They sound like “please, won’t you just listen” or “now, it wasn’t that bad,” or “I don’t want to fight,” or they just stay quiet, sometimes letting their facial expressions say what they are not willing to put out there. I was on Zoom the other day with my group, which is a good venue to observe how faces tell things people are not yet willing to say.  The make the atmosphere a bit unreal or desperate.

Distracters (the “irrelevant” style) attempt to derail the conversation when they are uncomfortable. Their postures are more like rapid movements, or laughing at inappropriate moments. Words they use sound like “not to change the subject, but” or “did you see that new movie?” Maybe more, they feel so irrelevant or are so irrelevant to what is hapening they can’t keep their attention on it, they are easily distracted. I think people kept shutting off their video during our meeting the other day because it was hard to keep up the energy it takes to connect that way. I took a phone call from the City of Philadelphia myself. Distrcter make the atmosphere feel insubstantial, even foolish or shameful.

Being a leveler is hard. It is a lot easier to stay reactive and most of us prefer that, even when we feel called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Virginia Satir believed if we would all get congruent and live as levelers, world peace would be ushered in. As soon as she said that, she was criticized for being a naive woman who ignored the needs of the “Third World” (as Eurocentric people called it then).  She went around the world telling her story, anyway. As a result, her present influence might be more significant outside the United States now than it was inside then.

Three ways to stop the argument in your head

Someone I know (call them Z) was betrayed big time by two old friends not long ago. A job was lost, a reputation sullied. One of the betrayers moved far away from their small town, so Z felt OK about cutting them off. But the other person was not going anywhere. It was almost guaranteed Z was going to see her at the supermarket.

This traumatizer kept popping up in Z’s head. She had said some terrible things. She had told some lies. Z suspected she was spreading slander to common friends, not to mention other people in town who were hungry for gossip and did not mind a bit of scandal.

Invasive thoughts were getting a bit debilitating. Z was out for a walk along a beautiful creek on a perfect fall day but the slanderous woman found some headspace and soon Z was arguing with her. She was impossible to shake. Z’s spouse asked what was wrong and suddenly they were both mad again and the leaves began to turn dull.

Most of us can be tormented by recurrent negative thoughts that tie us up: “What if? What did I do wrong? What am I going to do? How can this be happening to me?” Hurts and losses bubble up as anger. We start saying all the things to the person we didn’t say before. We imagine what they are saying and argue back. We let them colonize our minds. Soon we’re afraid to go to the store for fear of being more overwhelmed!

Here are three common ways to get out of the debilitating cycle of arguing in your head, three ways to move on, grow up, or get through rather than dreading the thought of that person, rather than feeling stuck, or fearing the possibility of open conflict .

Shutting off an internal argument

These suggestions are mainly about changing how you behave.

  • Accept the problem is not going away and be friendly anyway. This may be important when you are related to the antagonist. Just accept you’re different and let it be. “Don’t go there.” Obviously, some major differences may require planning for a calm conversation. But smaller issues can be let go.
  • Choose who you relate to. You do not need to have a good relationship with everyone, especially abusive or argumentative people. It may pain you to scroll by people you think you should care about, or maybe even love. But it is not required to soak up bile or endure uncaring behavior.
  • Remember you have value even if they don’t value you. What other people think about you or say about you is mainly about them, not you. If you are not so emotionally wrapped up in what they said or did it is easier to avoid having unfinished arguments with them in your head. If your co-worker mocks you for the mistake you made, talk yourself out of staying awake feeling stupid that night, “He’s got reasons for being mean and I’ve got plenty of reasons to think I’ll master my job.”
  • Nip the internal argument in the bud. How often have you been washing dishes and realize the free space in your brain has been invaded by “that old argument?” It is great if you can gently note what’s happening and turn to something else. It might take some practice. Maybe you could create a helpful catch phrase to use like, “These thoughts are poisonous, don’t drink them.”
  • If you can’t stop, you could distract yourself. That does not mean looking them up on Instagram and feeling superior. Go for a walk, even if it just around the house; get your body on your side. Call a supportive friend (not to get them arguing too, that could just dig the rut deeper). Do a puzzle. Breathe it out – pray it out. You might not want to vacuum, that might leave brain space unoccupied for more argument.
  • Try setting apart a limited time to fret. If certain thoughts are derailing the whole day, you might try setting apart a limited amount of time to go ahead and think them through. A half an hour in solitude after dinner to practice an upcoming conversation or play through an old one might diminish the threat of them popping up when you’d rather be having sex or preparing for an exam.

Working through the feelings

These suggestions mainly attend to emotions.

  • Trying mentalizing about the whole conversation instead of deflecting bits. Imagine what you and the other person are really trying to say; you might get to say what you wish you had said. But don’t just unleash your fury and devastate them, focus on the feelings that upset you. When the co-worker made you look incompetent, why did that hurt? Are you insecure? Do you feel you are not recognized for your abilities? Did he remind you of your dad, your brother or that demeaning coach in jr. high?
  • Name the emotions as they arise. It is hard to keep a replay going if you don’t feel it deeply. The incident may have triggered some unfinished developmental business you have or may have reignited a traumatic experience. If you name what you feel you might understand your emotions better and and not be run around by a mysterious inner “force.” You might say, “I’m afraid I will be embarrassed when I see them in the store,” or “My anger is strangling me.” It is good for us when we let our emotions be normal, not a threat or a sin, and figure out what we want to do about them.
  • Get your feelings out of your head and into your journal. Maybe your process so far has been the first part of working something out and now you can express what you’ve come to and even make a plan. Use your journal. Maybe you could write a letter to the person with whom you’ve been arguing. You don’t have to give it to them; sometimes communication is no longer possible, or advisable – especially if you’ve been abused or they represent how you have been marginalized. In that case, just getting it out of your mind and onto the paper may be enough. You could burn the letter and let the contents go. You can close your journal and leave the feelings in the past.
  • Professional counselors try to be adept at helping people work through anxiety. If you are losing sleep, t of knowing increasingly angry or depressed, you might like to talk to someone you can trust, professional or not.

Having a healing interpersonal process

These suggestions mainly work with how you relate.

  • Express yourself. If you are a Christian you probably feel obligated to be reconciled with people or, unfortunately, appear to be OK with everyone. Regardless, if you’ve been having an argument with someone in your head and you think it is remotely possible you can have a personal, undistracted moment with them, it would could be good to talk to them. You could begin with, “That comment you made the other day about my work really bothered me. So I thought I’d circle back. Were you just being funny? Or were you trying to say something I need to hear?” It helps to rehearse what you’d like to calmly say.
  • Create a safe place. When you initiate a dialogue, it would help to let the person know you are doing something you care about and invite them into it, rather than just appearing out of nowhere saying something super serious. You could begin with something like, “I feel a little awkward being this personal, but I would like to tell you about what I’ve been feeling. I hope you’ll take a turn to talk when I’m finished.”
  • Keep calm. Something that even smells like conflict often sets people into fight, flight or freeze mode. So it will help them if your tone is calm and you speak slowly. If you have them listening and you bring some fiery emotion they will probably get caught up with how you are acting, not with what you are communicating. Remember to tell an “I” story, not a “you” story. The more you say “you,” the more likely they are to stop listening and start defending themselves.
  • It is always better for healing if there are less details and more feelings. Yes, they came home an hour later than expected and they’ve done other inconsiderate things in the past. The point is to invite them to care about how worried you felt and to work on a deeper trust that will allow you both to feel safe and connected. Especially if you are married, your marriage is a “common ground” you share. You can work on building a good relationship rather than working on one another’s flaws.

 What if none of that stopped the argument in your head?

Wouldn’t it be nice if relationships were “plug and play?” Wouldn’t it be great if each of us were not so complicated? Not long ago, one of my clients said to their mate, “Can we just agree that everyone is shitty?” The mate did not naturally go with such thoughts (thus, therapy), but they went with it that time and it relieved quite a bit of tension. Nothing really “works.” We won’t do everything “right.” We can’t. And if we did do something right, it probably  would not get perfect results in an imperfect world.

If you keep rehashing after all this work, you must be very committed to this internal argument! Maybe it has come to define you. Chances are, if you can’t let go, you are working with something rather deep. I hope you can let it be unresolved for now in a tender way. It must be a mystery and Jesus will need to save you. Constantly working out the puzzle like you are in charge of your own salvation is not going to be better than giving up on complete resolution. Many people have taken these conundrums that torment them like they torment you and lifted them to God in an act of submission and trust. Maybe you need to acknowledge the “thorn” that keeps poking you and let Jesus bear the pain with you until something better develops.

Disturbing French church buildings — and what we’re not building

church ruins in Lyon

Lyon was beautiful to see. But Lyon was disturbing.

But then I could probably say that about you. You are undoubtedly a beautiful, even wondrous piece of God’s art, but you are disturbing at times.

The world is so beautiful! – it stretched out mile after mile in the French countryside. I saw it. But it is also disturbing.

In Lyon on a beautiful day, we tore ourselves from the lovely view on the bridge over the Saone River and came to St. John the Baptist Cathedral in the Old City (a UNESCO site). Behind the cathedral were the remains of even older church buildings. All that remains of them are an artful arch, a remarkable baptistry surviving from the 4th century and stubby markers of where there used to be walls (my pic above).

St. John the Baptist Cathedral church building in Lyon
Those niches below the rose window used to have statues

The French Revolution

What had remained of the churches of Saint Stephen and the Holy Cross in Lyon were reportedly destroyed during the French Revolution (1789-92) like so many old church buildings were torn down and often used as quarries after they were nationalized. The still-standing cathedral was spared because it was turned into a “temple of reason.” Somehow the ancient baptistry survived. You can read more about the destruction of church buildings here. We saw even more ambitious vengeance when we visited Cluny, a huge, bucket-list, historic complex reduced to almost nothing. When we visited Fontenay Abbey, founded by St. Bernard (also on my bucket list), we saw it stripped to the bones.

After visiting Versailles and Fontainebleau, I could understand even more why people wanted to destroy the ancien regime with its fully-politicized and oppressive church. I have never really been comfortable with most churches dominated by powerful men. I could not even spend a full day at the famous Taize last week, when I realized how women were marginalized. The need for change felt like an emotional itch that needed to be scratched then and now.

As I wandered through history, I could not help wondering what the revolutionaries are doing to the present-day church once I got a personal look at what they did in the past. It did not work out that well in France.  After a decade of hysteria, villainy, murder and ineptitude the French Revolution ended up with Napoleon, ensconced again at Fontainebleau. The U.S. might be ripe for the same kind of thing and install Trump or DeSantis. Meanwhile, its fully-politicized church, largely listening to Fox News (or not), would keep tearing itself apart as surely as people literally tore down stones in Lyon.

missing statues heads on the church in Lyon
A couple of survivors got their heads chopped off.

The age of the Huguenots

The Church of John the Baptist in Lyon is striking. When you look at it more closely, you realize it has also been struck. That fact speaks to me.

One of its founders was St. Irenaeus (b. 130!). By 450, a bishop built a big building there. By 1079 the archbishop there was named the “Primate of all the Gauls.” The present building was begun in 1180 and called complete in 1476 (these buildings are all a constant rehab project). Some people blame the missing and defaced statues on the cathedral on an outbreak of Huguenot  looting in 1562. Huguenots were statue-hating Protestants like John Calvin (92 miles away in Geneva who died in 1564). They were kin to the Puritans in England and the U.S. There is a lot of church history in your face as you face the church, which left me with more questions than answers.

The church I experienced for most of my adulthood feels a bit looted, of late, from the right and the left of the political spectrum. Part of that is me being old. But more, I feel violated because, just like the Huguenots and like the Revolutionaries who followed them, reaction to the horrible excesses and corruption of the rulers these days is more about tearing down the past than building a sustainable future. I told one of my guides, “We spent some time in the church,” during one of our tourist stops and he gave me a pitying and puzzled look. I said, “We’re like that.” He was surprised anyone still is. The French church has never recovered from the Huguenot wars and the Revolution. I have a lot of friends who aren’t recovering very well right now, too.

I am disappointed over how often the newly-powerful keep doing the same damned things that are as plain as the nose on your saint’s face — chipped right off a Lyon statue! The new regime often throws the baby out with the dirty bath water when they throw a statue into the Saone. (I am not sure anyone did that but those statues are somewhere!). Yet another leader turns out to be a sexual predator and it is off with everyone’s head and burn some books. The ever-present powermongers get a whiff of how they could use your convictions for further profit or fame and we all think being at loggerheads is normal and every institution needs purifying (often in the name of tolerance and intolerance).

What Church are we building?

It seems I must have visited most of the French church buildings by now — they leave them open, so we go in to pray or sing. They are usually beautiful – so regularly beautiful you begin to take for granted the art, skill and passion that went into creating them. But they were disturbing. Empty. Echoing with violence and corruption as well as with praise. I met God repeatedly and wonderfully in them – but they have a lot yet to teach me.

We are in the process of making ruins of the 20th century church. I admit to abandoning it once Ronald Reagan got a hold of it. I probably threw out some babies. There is a lot worthy of reform and I hope we are doing it somehow. But I can’t see what we are building. The lovely things so many people attempted to build in the last 20 years are being swept away for what?

History has a lot to teach us about what creates faith lived out in community. The French revolutionaries thought history began with them so they missed some lessons. I can sympathize with them, though, and I feel the fervor of people who want change now — when it comes to racism, sexism, gun proliferation and climate policy, among many things; so do I. But Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.

The new movement of the Spirit takes lament, commitment, action

On May 4th I begged a piece of paper from Gwen to take notes at the Jesus Collective Partner Summit. One would think a serious partner would be prepared to codify his marching orders! At least Gwen came prepared to move with the movement.

A Spirit-inspired vision still being born

I really should have had a few sheets of paper because there were many good things to collect! It was nice to be among a group of committed, often brilliant partners from around the world who are united by a vision for keeping a spiritual ball rolling. Beyond the reformation of Eurocentric, capitalist-bound, principle-centered, power-struggling, often narcissistic and male Christianity, there is a movement of Jesus-centered people who see another way to be the church. It is not a new way, but after hundreds of years of European domination, it seems new. Jesus Collective is working on a practical expression of the ancient-future way of the cross and resurrection that transcends all the boundaries of the world. If you explore the website you’ll probably get an idea of what’s going on. The website won’t tell you everything however; the new zeitgeist of the Body of Christ these days is better caught by experiencing like mindedness in relationship than taught with more left-brained schooling.

I enjoyed the relating but I was also schooled during the Partner Summit and Unite22. Jesus Collective has a unique view of the future because it was born right before the pandemic hit. Life these days is kind of “before the lockdowns” and “after a million Americans died.” It was not the most advantageous time to start something, but Jesus Collective started. Then the pandemic hit and then the revelation of Bruxy Cavey’s infidelity torpedoed the Meeting House which had been the collective’s incubator. The megachurch is still the incubator, only it is more like a NICU in a Kharkiv hospital. Since the inaugural in-person gathering I attended in 2019, the whole constituency has been traumatized and reformed. I was schooled about that, too.

What to do when the movement meets resistance

But there was so much more happening among the Jesus Collective than trauma! I came away stimulated and inspired – and convicted to keep the ball rolling! I can’t vouch for my notes, since my handwriting is often indecipherable. But I am still moved by three points I noted from a speaker I can’t remember. He or she was trying to answer the question, “What do we do now?” If there is still a movement of the Spirit alive in the world, how do we not only move with it but move it along when we are exhausted and beset with overwhelming circumstances? Jesus shows us a way. Here are three elements of staying on the way and showing the way with Him: lament, commitment, and action.

Jesus wept / lament

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. – Luke 19-41-2

My Christian psychotherapy clients, especially, often call lamenting “griping.” They are prone to say, “I shouldn’t be having these feelings” or “I am not sure I deserve to be sad when Ethiopians are on the verge of starvation.” Jesus did not talk himself out of crying. He did not shut himself down because people would see his despair and despise him for his vulnerability.

Emmanuel Katangole, from the east of Congo, justly became more famous during the pandemic because he has written so eloquently about the necessity and the power of lament. He says:

Lament is an invitation to see reality through the eyes of the most vulnerable, and to name and admit what is broken.

In this historical moment, only through the practice of lament can we imagine a new and better future. More than a personal spiritual practice, lament has potent political implications in three ways: connecting us to the oppressed, telling the truth to governments, and transcending partisan political borders.

I believe there is a new movement of the Spirit at work in the world, just as there is tragedy and evil afoot. If we are being reduced to repentance, that is a good thing. Lament is a positive spiritual response to our shame and hopelessness. Tears often water the seeds of a better future. If we can be moved, maybe we can energize a movement.

Edvard Munch, Melancholy (1894).

Jesus asked, “Do you want to be well?” / commit

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” – John 5:6

I asked one of my clients that question once. They had to think about it. Their aloneness had come to feel like their safe place. The vengeance they wanted over their abusers felt more important than health. The small space of control they felt they owned seemed violated by the question. I don’t think we should underestimate just how profound a question the Lord asks us, “No, really. Do you want to be made well?”

Taking the Lord’s outstretched hand is just the beginning. The man who was healed had to relearn to walk and experience being “the guy who was lame for 38 years.” He had to change how he saw himself and keep deciding to be well. At the end of the day we have to make a commitment to life. We often have to fight for our lives. Together we’re called to fight for the life of the world too.

I think Americans are so accustomed to their imperial ease that hysteria breaks out if gas costs a dollar more a gallon. Filipinos just elected the son of their former dictator because authoritarianism looks good if it promises some semblance of order. Even churches are adopting the authoritarian playbook. In these reactions, I don’t see a commitment to wellness, just control: I see little of the Spirit, mostly fear. I know a lot of Americans and a few Filipinos; many of them are exhausted, traumatized and often numb – and a lot of them are Jesus followers! For the first time, many of us may be able to relate to the man who couldn’t get to the pool. But here comes Jesus asking us for a commitment to him, not just to our own capacity. If we can get up and move again, maybe we can stoke the spiritual movement we all need so desperately.

Jesus taught: love God and your neighbor / act

Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. – Matthew 22:36-8

When I went to the Jesus Collective Partner Summit, I admit I was wary. So it was moving when many people convinced me I was loved and accepted, even valued.  I have my own trauma that makes me suspicious; I’m still recovering from a love breakdown in my former church. Quite often I need to remind myself to act love, do love, see love as my daily task. Otherwise I might just do me; I might get in the habit of being suspicious.

The leaders of the church where I completed my pastoring shunned my entire family because they imagined we were a threat to them. It was a classic cut off. Since we all still live in the same town and still care about our old friends, the absurdity of it all comes to fruit when people get married, have children, etc. and throw parties. The people remaining in the church have to wonder if it is OK to still love us and include us. They aren’t sure why, but we are out and they are supposed maintain “boundaries.” I hope we will all be back together in love one day. But until then, loving hurts. It is the task the Lord gives me as much as a delight I experience.

There are still people in Philly who operate according to the old redlining boundaries from the past. Family systems still don’t talk to descendants of a “black sheep.” Whole protestant denominations still recoil when something seems like it might be “Catholic.” For some reason the Supreme Court will sacrifice the peace of the country to overturn the right to privacy. There is a lot of broken love built right into the infrastructure. I may feel like I’m making bricks without straw, but we all need to bring at least one brick to the building of the beloved community every day. If we can move another brick onto that vision, maybe we can nurture the movement of the Spirit springing up in the strangest places.

We are called to get up every day and do the work of love. We are not called to get up every day and wish someone would do the work of loving me or get up angry about the people who don’t do the work. The desire and demand to love may flood some days with the tears of lament – let it come, let it sink in, and move with the Spirit anyway. The desire and demand to love will make us wonder if it is worth it to be well since well is hard — listen to the “yes” of the spirit resonating with the truth “You are beloved and valued” then make the commitment.

Let’s love others because we are lovers not because everything is working out well. Love is a feeling that becomes a task. Love is a desire that can’t help but become an action. Love is Jesus looking over Jerusalem with tears, reaching out his hand in compassion and challenge, getting himself killed, giving his life and forgiveness freely and in hope of resurrection. The Jesus Collective, in league with people all over the world, senses a new movement of raw, Jesus-y love like that spreading around the ever-warming globe, changing and rebuilding lives and churches. Maybe like never before we have a chance to bring good news to everyone in an era full of bad news and broken institutions.